Supermarket sweep: a shopping challenge

Last week we held a mirror in front of the State’s seven main supermarkets to see which was the fairest of them all


Armed only with a shopping list and a critical eye, Pricewatch went looking for the winner of our inaugural Supermarket Badge of Honour. We did not just look at price, although that was very important. We also considered the atmosphere, product range, staff chattiness and background music in the various shops.

When filling our basket we veered towards own brand where available but even in that sphere we did our best to compare like with like. For example, we did not take the cheapest, vilest tea in one supermarket, and compare it with a high-end, high-priced tea in a rival shop – all the teas we priced were gold blend. All the potatoes were rooster, all the cheddar was mild and all the oranges were orange. Our shopping list was made up of: bread, butter, milk, tea, tomato ketchup, steak, oranges, rooster potatoes, mild cheddar and penne pasta.

Our favourite:
Supervalu is a unique proposition in Irish retailing in that it is the only one of the big seven to adopt a quasi-franchise model. This is a good thing, not least because many of the individual shops are more deeply rooted in their communities than the multi-nationals who hoover up profits and ship them overseas. They employ local accountants and solicitors, contribute to local organisations and buy direct from local suppliers.

We visit a recently revamped Supervalu on the banks of the Liffey and the first thing that is striking is the music. While many big supermarkets pipe saccharine muzak over the speaker system in an attempt to sooth us into spending money we don’t have on stuff we don’t need, Supervalu is playing The Smiths. Fortunately for the retailer, the song is not Heaven Knows I’m Miserable Now and as we sing along quietly to There Is a Light That Never Goes Out we fill our basket with 10 staples. We are able to mix and match own-brand and branded products in a way that is harder to do in Lidl, M&S or Aldi and we know from past experience that many of the Supervalu own brands are of a very high quality. They are also competitively priced.

There is not the array of vegetables to be found elsewhere and the fish options are very limited – although that does change depending on the store.

This shop is small and there is only one staff member on the floor. We couldn’t help but notice the poor chap has just been given a dressing down by his manager over a higgledy piggledy bananas display. We interrupt his mournful restocking and ask about the soy sauce. He drops what he’s doing (not literally) and walks us directly to the shelf where the product is located.

At the till we say the two words that we will repeat in each of the State’s main supermarkets. “Nice day,”. The pleasant chap at the till agrees and says it was freezing as he came into work at 6am. It is the only occasion over the course of our supermarket sweep that a staff member actually engages with the conversation.

Price is the key thing in determining where most of us shop now and in this regard Supervalu does okay without being outstanding. Our basket of 10 items which was split 50/50 between own-brand and branded products came in at ¤31.66.

Verdict: Friendly, cheap, Irish.
Star rating: * * * * *

Marks and Spencer
We have high hopes when we go into M&S and see no less than 14 staff members on the shop floor helping people, stocking shelves and, um, chatting among themselves about their weekend plans – yes, we eavesdrop.

The aisles are wide and there is no music playing. The stock is mostly own-brand and, generally speaking, of a very high quality. The array of exotic fruits and fish is commendable as is its commitment to ethical sourcing.

It gets a black mark for its unwillingness to tell us how much money it makes from customers in the Republic but so do all the others.

We pick a staff member at random and ask where the soy sauce is. She looks at us like we have two heads and asks a colleague standing nearby what soy sauce is and where she might find it. She is directed to a faraway part of the shop and asks us to follow her. She gets lost again and has to ask another member of staff where it is before she eventually finds it.

This atypical confusion aside, the experience of shopping is M&S is a pleasant one and we amble about spending money we don’t have on stuff we don’t need before making our way to the express queue. It moves fast and when it is Pricewatch’s turn we say: “Nice day.” The response is not what we expect. “Yeah it is,” the till operator says as she continues scanning the shopping.

Then, in total silence, we bag what we have bought – incidentally M&S has the best plastic bags of all the supermarkets doing business in the Republic – and we get a receipt and are sent on our way. To be fair to M&S, the customer service is usually much better than this and the interaction at the tills is usually a lot friendlier.

It is not a cheap place to shop but it has been making strides in recent months to highlight the fact that when it comes to basic groceries, it is price matching its rivals. Despite that, the price of ¤54.66 is substantially more than most of the competition. The price of the steak – and it was by no means the most expensive steak M&S was selling – pushed the price up, as did the fruit and veg.

Verdict: Sometimes pricey, almost always lovely
Star rating: ****

Many previous experiences in Tes co h ave us convinced it is not a friendly pl ace to shop. The staff at the tills and those that can be found on the shop floor are always on the surly side. O n this occasion things are different.

The aisles are long and wide and there is a lot of stock – there is a paucity of nice fresh fruit, however, and what is on display seems tired.

There is also an awful lot of signage to deal with. Tesco is very keen to tell its shoppers how its prices compare to Lidl, and there are dozens of signs under products boasting that the price is the same here as it is there – we’d be more impressed if the price was lower.

There are more than 20 aisles in this Tesco and we can buy everything from microwave ovens to dressing gowns to freshly baked bread and frozen ready meals.

There is a lot of stock but not a lot of staff. In fact, we saw only three on a shop floor about five times the size of M&S, where there were 14.

The staff member we approach about our soy sauce dilemma is cheery and knows exactly where to find it. He even goes the extra mile – and given the size of the store, we mean that almost literally – by walking us to the product.

An indication of how keen Tesco is to reduce staff numbers is the number of automated tills in each store. Pricewatch decides it can’t be dealing with the “unexpected item in bagging area” chatter that comes from these horrendous machines, and instead we queue to have our items scanned by a real person.

We are greeted with a smile and a hello, and the woman seems mildly interested in our banal chit chat about the weather. Our mood darkens when the Tesco bag we paid 22 cent for shreds as we leave the store – it could scarcely have been less reliable had it been made with wet tissue paper.

At ¤32.03 for our basket, Tesco reveals itself to be slightly dearer than Supervalu, although the practice of price-matching means that difference is marginal.

Verdict: Middling
Star rating: ***

Aldi has grown its market share in Ireland at a remarkable rate in recent months, and as other retailers have performed sluggishly, the German discounter has seen its market share increase dramatically. In the 12 weeks up to the middle of last month, Aldi recorded sales growth of 29 per cent, and its market share has gone up from 4.6 per cent last year to 5.9 per cent now. It is now the fifth-most-popular supermarket in the State, having moved ahead of its main rival Lidl for the first time late last year.

It also has some very good quality stock and some very keen prices. When we go shopping there it is not, however, a nice experience. There are four staff on the shop floor – not bad when you consider it is a fraction of the size of the Tesco nearby, which had a similar number. But all the employees seem to be in bad form.

When we ask where the soy sauce is, a young staff member waves her hand in our face and says: “Second aisle. Top shelf.” Then she goes back to emptying a pallet on to the shelves. Our encounter with the chap at the till is equally grim and our “Nice day?” is greeted with what can most charitably be described as a grunt.

Because the shop is small and the stock limited, and because we can resist the charms of the 210 litre water butt set and the mixing taps on special in the centre aisle, we get through our list very fast.

We have to pack our groceries very fast too because Aldi, and Lidl, have a packing policy that means you are not supposed to bag your items at the till, but dump them back into your trolley and take them to a bagging area to pack them. While that might make life easier for Aldi, and have a knock-on effect on till-queueing times, it does not enhance our shopping experience or our mood.

Still, people do not go to Aldi to make friends or to cheer themselves up, so the thing to focus on is price. It is perhaps higher than we thought but that is because we went for the store’s excellent Specially Selected sirloin, which does come at a premium.

All told, our basket of 10 items comes to ¤41.25. But that includes a kilo of its very high-end and very,very good steak. Were we to take that out of our basket, the full price would have been ¤14.61, compared with ¤19.54 for the Tesco basket minus the steak, while in Supervalu the steak-less price would have been ¤20.34.
Verdict: Low prices, high quality, awful service
Star rating: ****

There is a Lidl not far from the Aldi we visit.It is, if anything, grimmer still. The first impression is very good indeed and we get a wafting smell of freshly baked bread as soon as we walk through the door.

We are sure we are being duped by some air-conditioning wizardry until we catch sight of large ovens and a baker turning out freshly baked loaves near the entrance.

It is downhill from here, however. This Lidl seems more cramped and it is definitely busier than the local Aldi. There are long queues at the tills and they move very slowly. We like the specials and are tempted by the satellite dish for 50 quid. We are less tempted and more intrigued by the massive power generator that could have been ours for ¤200.

Finding a staff member to help us in this very small store is challenging. We can see one in the storeroom but he is breaking boxes with a venomous energy so we don’t disturb him and instead we spend five minutes morosely walking the aisles looking for help.

Eventually, we track someone down and when we ask about the soy sauce they point to a pillar and say: “It’s behind there somewhere.”Brilliant. This particularly grumpy Lidl employee makes the assistant in Aldi seem like an angel of mercy.

We can’t face the long queue so abandon our shopping and flee. We’ll give Lidl the benefit of the doubt and assume the conversation with the check-out person would have sparkled like a thousand shimmering stars.

A price of ¤35.69 is higher than you might expect, but as with Aldi, the high-end steak option is skewing the numbers. If we take away the price of the steak, our basket of nine items falls to ¤15.26 which would make it the third cheapest of the stores last week and just beaten for the top spot by its main rival Aldi and Dunnes.

Verdict: Pretty cheap and pretty grim
Star rating: ***

Dunnes Stores
The oldest of the big seven, Dunnes has been through a lot in the last half century and it is still standing and growing strongly according to the latest research on grocery market share, which was published last week. It has big stores and small stores but the one we pick is middling in many ways.

It has a disappointing array of fruit and vegetables and the choice of fresh meat and fish isn’t great. Having said that, you could quite easily do a weekly shop here every week and not feel like you were going without.

It has a lot of mid-range own-brand products, which line out alongside all the well-established brands, and if you fancy buying some clothes or crockery once your grocery shopping is done, all its other departments are but a slow-moving escalator away.

There are maybe eight staff members on the shop floor and the one we approach looking for help with our soy sauce hunt is robotic in her charms. “Aisle eight. Top shelf,” she says gesturing towards what we guess is eight. She is absolutely right, and while she lost points for brusqueness she gained some for her accuracy.

There are a lot of tills open and they move quickly – a depressing number of people ahead of us are buying cheap booze. We say “nice day” again, to which we get the response “Is it? I don’t know. I haven’t seen the outside since I came in.” The conversation ends there. We’d like to comment on the quality of the 22 cent bags in Dunnes Stores but we can’t because they didn’t have any.

While a two-litre container of Dunnes own-brand milk sells for ¤1.49 – the same price as everywhere else – the shop also sells another brand of milk we didn’t recognise for just ¤1.19. This is the cheapest milk we find anywhere. The final tally, with one kilo of sirloin steak, is ¤30.30. Without the most expensive item, the price of the basket is ¤14.99, which leaves Dunnes in second place in the price stakes.

Verdict: Cheap and charmless
Star rating: ***

Before M&S (and the likes of Fallon & Byrne and Morton’s in Dublin and Galway) came along, Superquinn was the place to go for great customer service and vaguely exotic food. Times have changed however and Superquinn has struggled to retain its cachet. Having said that, we still reckon a Superquinn shopping experience is a cut above most of the competition, not least because David Bowie’s Ziggy Stardust is playing over the speakers when we call in.

The shop floor is not overrun with staff but those that are there seem are knowledgeable, friendly, and helpful. When we ask a member of staff holding a large sign and standing on a ladder for our soy sauce we are taken to the spot without delay.

The shop is bright and spacious and has a good mix of own-brand and branded products as well as some fancy wooden tubs of olive oil and fresh pesto. There is also a lot of Irish stock on the shelves and a range of olive oils, breads and fruits that some of its rivals would do well to copy.

Superquinn loses out in other ways, however. It is not nationwide and it falls down on price, too. When the steak is included, the cost of our 10 items comes to ¤35.95, and when it is taken off, the price falls to ¤22.21 or up there with the most expensive of the shops visited.

Verdict: Old school priciness
Star rating: ***

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